Calming the chaos tips for mealtimes

For those of you experiencing mealtime madness either because of your autistic children and their restrictions and rigidity, because of the need to cater for special diets or, like me, because of a mixed household I am afraid I can give no definitive answers to the problems you have. You can rest assured however that you are not alone (not much consolation I know!). I will however, gladly share those tips that in our household go some way to calming the chaos.

• For those of you with children like Ben who insist on the same routine every morning, use a story board with pictures and words and detail exactly how breakfast or another meal is to be carried out. Although picture schemes such as PECS, PCS and Social Stories (see Useful Websites) are primarily for our autistic children, they also give a quick reference for our non autistic children and help them to follow the routines that are so important.

• If your autistic children will only have certain bowls, cups, spoons, etc. then keep them in a separate cupboard and if at all possible, buy more than one set of everything. I have lost count of the number of times we have all had to ransack the house while Ben screamed hysterically for the right spoon!

• Save introducing new foods for times when you are not expecting them to eat, rather than at mealtimes. If you are wanting to extend your child's 'repertoire' of foods then you need to be prepared for a lot of sniffing and pushing away rather than getting frustrated whilst trying to serve everyone else too.

• Alternatively, be brave and try an occasional family mealtime as a place to add a new food whilst the rest of the family eats their meal. It may cause chaos and most probably will, but sometimes our kids really do surprise us!

• Although in an ideal world we would all like to have the perfect family setting and all of our children sitting smiling happily around the dinner table, remember that each family is unique. If your autistic child eats better alone, then don't force him or her to sit with the others and make everyone suffer. Try periodically to see how everyone copes but remember that no one way is the only way.

• If you have children on special diets then remember to remind their siblings simply and frequently about issues such as contamination and off limit foods. Remember that as pivotal as it is to our own and our autistic children's lives, their siblings, particularly teenagers, have their own lives and problems to deal with.

• Make an effort to give individual attention in some way if it becomes evident that a sibling is resenting the special effort their brother or sister needs at mealtimes. Try to do this straight after the mealtime if at all possible.

• Try to involve siblings in the preparation of foods for the ones on special diets. This not only gives them a sense of responsibility and helps their understanding but also gives them time and attention and so resolves jealousy.

• If your autistic child is experiencing a reaction to a food for whatever reason, then try to explain clearly to the other children exactly what is happening and why. A visual reminder often serves to remind them to be careful...at least for a few days!

• If you have an opportunity to be with only your children on ordinary diets for a while then try to indulge them and give them the opportunity to eat foods that would otherwise cause problems at home. I try to take mine out occasionally and let them eat cream cakes and sandwiches without having to check for crumbs.

• Finally, remember that whatever works for you as a family is fine. Don't make comparisons with other families and don't be afraid to experiment. If you try a new way to create harmony at mealtimes and instead create more chaos, then try to see the funny side, mark up one more memory to cherish.. .and know that at least you tried!

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